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The New Politics of Criminal Justice Reform

Jennifer Bellamy,
Senior Legislative Counsel
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December 22, 2010

On December 15, with new Republican majorities in 19 state legislatures and hundreds of newly elected lawmakers committed to spending cuts — I attended the launch of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Right on Crime campaign. Right on Crime’s Statement of Principles has been signed by a number of conservatives including Newt Gingrich, former White House drug czar William Bennett and former Attorney General Ed Meese.

In response to the launch of the Right on Crime campaign, conservative lawmakers and commentators are saying:

“I believe we can take an approach to crime that is both tough and smart…[T]here are thousands of non-violent offenders in the system whose future we cannot ignore. Let’s focus more resources on rehabilitating those offenders so we can ultimately spend less money locking them up again.”

Rick Perry, Governor of Texas

“We should not be resigned to allowing generation after generation to return to prison because they do not have the tools to break the cycle.”

Sam Brownback, Governor-elect of Kansas

“The Founders viewed the criminal sanction as a last resort, reserved for serious offenses, clearly defined, so ordinary citizens would know whether they are violating the law.”

John Stossel, Fox News

Our nation’s unprecedented rise in incarceration rates and the more than 4,000 federal crimes spread throughout the 27,000 pages of the U.S. Code should be — and is steadily becoming – a source of great concern to everyone. Accordingly, today our country is less free — and more locked down — than at any point in American history.

In keeping with this growing momentum against overincarceration — on December 16, Meese, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Executive Director Norman Reiner and I spoke in support of a change to the House rules requiring bills with criminal penalties to be referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary. (Rules are adopted at the beginning of each new Congress. The Republican majority will meet January 4 to consider the package of rules to be offered and likely adopted when the 112th Congress convenes on January 5.) This modest reform will help mitigate some of the problems with our often duplicative, poorly drafted federal criminal laws.

After decades of legislating based on sound bites and slogans, a consensus is developing in favor of criminal justice policy that keeps our communities safer, is fiscally responsible and fair. And I think we can all agree that it’s about time.

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